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In July 2010 John Liffen, Curator of Communications at the Science Museum in London, published the definitive history of Cooke and Wheatstone's earliest telegraph instruments and their use between 1837 and 1842; it is very different from accepted history. This chapter has been extensively revised by Steven Roberts to include John Liffen's researches:

Cook & Wheatstone's Patent Five Needle Telegraph
The original "wide screen" dial, 48 inches by 30 inches, wall-mounted at Euston Square station of the London & Birmingham Railway, using a separate permutating keyboard, working on September 6, 1837
Photo © Steven Roberts 2009

As has been noted in the Introduction, William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone obtained their patent for the electric telegraph on June 10, 1837. 

The patent was one of the last signed by William IV before his niece Victoria assumed the Crown of Britain. At this moment the country was in the throes of its first great Railway Mania, it saw the raising of huge sums of capital for companies to connect the major cities with each other by steam-powered railways. The end of the French wars saw Government contract radically, its fiscal needs reduced and its need for loans, the commonest public investment, vanished; money was cheap. It was the advent of an era; where capital could be raised with ease and applied to great projects for public and private good, for gas and water utilities, banking, insurance, even cemeteries, as well as rails.  

Cook & Wheatstone's Patent of June 10, 1837
The first sheet of drawings showing their original five-needle instrument
used between Euston Square and Camden Town

It was not at this stage a speculative mania but primarily original investment; the concerns formed between 1836 and 1841, by and large, survived and prospered - although suffering considerably when the boom declined in 1840. It was into this optimistic market that telegraphy entered.

As their first business step W F Cooke and Charles Wheatstone established a formal partnership in a document dated November 19, 1837 to exploit their initial patent; such capital as was needed being raised on their own personal and limited security. The master English patent of June 10, 1837 was followed by one for Scotland on December 12, 1837 and for Ireland during April 1838. A Mr Lancaster purchased a one-third share in the Irish patent. These legal necessities cost, in all, £800 to secure; over forty times the average male's annual earnings. Cooke was to spend a similar sum on experimental instruments and materials by 1838.

It is not useful to rehearse the tiresome arguments that immediately ensued between Cooke and Wheatstone regarding just about everything connected with the details of their many patents and their respective contributions; these have been effectively covered elsewhere. They quarrelled endlessly. But it is necessary to record the progress of their partnership from 1837.

 The Patentees
At this time W F Cooke was styled a 'gentleman', that is a man without any formal occupation, in fact relying on limited family money. Cooke had acquired a superficial knowledge of electricity attending lectures in German universities and had devised or adapted telegraphic apparatus. It can be fairly said that his contribution to the partnership was managerial and promotional; he controlled the business aspects and undertook all the negotiations, contracting in his own name to build lines of electric telegraph. His commitment to establishing the telegraph, his energy and enthusiasm, if occasionally misguided, was undoubted. That being so he remained connected with the development of the Cooke & Wheatstone electric telegraph system in its subsequent corporate phase as a company director until 1868.  

Cooke filed no more telegraphic patents after his partnership with Wheatstone ended. In his later years he used the considerable capital he acquired from the telegraph in mining ventures and lost it all.

Francis Ronalds' electric telegraph 1816
An elaborate and wholly-successful experiment worked by static electricity,
it was visited by Charles Wheatstone when a child in 1817.
Wheatstone was to be a life friend and long time neighbour of Ronalds

During the summer of 1816, at the end of the Bonapartiste Wars, Francis Ronalds built an electric telegraph in the gardens of his house at 26 Upper Mall in Hammersmith, west of London. In its original form it consisted of two large wooden frames, twenty yards apart each with nineteen horizontal wooden bars from which were suspended thirty-seven iron hooks. Between the hooks was run a single length of eight miles of thin iron wire. This being before the awareness of the innovations of Volta or Galvani, the telegraph used static electricity, "lightning"! A Leyden jar was kept charged by a frictional electric machine, this was to be the transmitter. A Canton pith-ball electrometer, two resin spheres suspended on silk threads, acted as the receiver. Once the Leyden jar was attached to the long iron wire the two pith-balls momentarily were attracted together as the electric power passed between them. A little later Ronalds improved his telegraph by excavating a 525 foot long four-foot deep trench in the garden and buried within it a two-inch square wooden trough lined with pitch containing another iron wire protected by thick glass tubes; this he connected to the Leyden Jar, the static electricity machine and the electrometer, successfully sending momentary electrical signals underground.

Unfortunately the discharge of frictional or static electricity is momentary; unlike the continuous current made by means of Voltaic cells or electro-magnetism. Each discharge has to be generated individually.

To communicate messages Ronalds had made two identical clock-like machines, each with a slow-moving index or hand, with the alphabet engraved around the dial. The two machines were set running simultaneously - as the first index passed the appropriate letter the Leyden jar was applied to the wire and the electrometer moved instantaneously, indicating to the recipient by the moving hand on the second machine the same letter.

In 1817 a man took his curious fifteen-year old nephew from London to view the telegraph in Mr Ronalds' garden. The boy's name was Charles Wheatstone.

Charles Wheatstone was one of the outstanding academics of the 19th Century; devoted to developing theories and practical applications in many fields of physics. It is worth noting that Wheatstone, apparently the shy academic, was also partner with his brother in a flourishing musical instrument business – he had invented, patented and continued to develop the concertina between 1822 and 1844. In the 1820s and 1830s he investigated an acoustic communication process that he called the telephone. Always fascinated by language he used the word microphone, before such a thing was perfected.

In 1837, Professors Wheatstone, John Frederick Daniell, Joseph Henry and Alexander Dallas Bache, the latter eminent pair visiting from America, created a thermo-electric machine, in his rooms at King’s College; still the El Dorado of electric power sources, but having established that it could be done went on to other things.

With his patent of 1841 Wheatstone introduced several forms of electro-motor, or electro-magnetic engine, converting electricity into rotary motive power, as well as the first linear electric motor, controlling their speed with a rheostat of his own devising.

He invented a magnetic clock, and the stereoscope for viewing stereoscopic images, as well as making manifold improvements and innovations in electric telegraphy over forty years, including the first electric type-printing telegraph in 1840 and the automatic telegraph to carry bulk traffic in 1858.

Wheatstone was the first to give credence to underwater telegraphy in 1840. In the same year he devised an electric daisy-wheel printer for the telegraph which he perfected in 1862; and the chronoscope for measuring small intervals of time. In 1843 he produced the thermometer-telegraph for measuring temperature in the upper atmosphere using a balloon or within the depths of the earth in bore-holes. The commercial value of these innovations seems to have escaped him.

In contrast to this naïveté he developed the Universal telegraph for business, domestic and personal use between 1840 and 1868. In 1856 he devised the cryptograph, what might be termed a precursor of the Enigma cipher machine. He invented the magnetic exploder or electric blasting machine for mining in 1860 and latterly, in 1867, simultaneously with Siemens and others, perfected the dynamo or electric generator.

Wheatstone allowed his business affairs to be managed by others, initially by his brother as William Wheatstone & Company, "inventors and patentees of the concertina and manufacturers of harmoniums, music sellers and concertina makers." This was paralled by his involvement with Cooke. Latterly, after the failure of his working relationship with him, he was long associated in business with the electrical engineer, Nathaniel Holmes, the instrument maker, Augustus Stroh, and, finally, from 1870, with Robert Sabine at the British Telegraph Manufactory, which made his patent instruments and dynamos. He had a similarly long-standing relationship with Louis Lachenal, who manufactured his patent concertina from 1845 until his death in 1861. From 1859 he was deeply involved in establishing his Universal telegraph, recruiting many of his scientific friends in its promotion. Wheatstone, unlike Cooke, was to die a successful and wealthy family man.  

Subsequent to the grant of the patent in 1837, the first of many that Cooke and Wheatstone obtained, together and separately, the partnership constructed lines of telegraph in its own name and granted licences to others to use its instruments and materials. The business had a very slow start – not least because the seed capital used to build lines of wire had to be borrowed of individuals and banks as the partners had the most limited means. None of these earliest lines were open to the general public for messages.  

The London & Birmingham Railway's Euston Square Station in 1838
Due to the steepness of the incline trains were then run in and out of the terminus on a cable. The railway needed a telegraph to start and stop the cable engine at distant Camden Town, where locomotive working commenced 

The London & Birmingham Railway 1837
On June 27, 1837, just two weeks after the grant of the patent, W F Cooke, whilst lobbying the London & Birmingham Railway Company, was introduced to the legendary Robert Stephenson, its engineer. Time would show that Stephenson was impressed and was to retain an interest in the telegraph for the rest of his life.


The first Electric Telegraph of 1837
W F Cooke's own drawing of his three-needle telegraph,
three needles or discs suspended by wires rotated on a vertical axis
by three "butterfly" switches, used between Euston Square and
Camden Town in London 

The  "First" Telegraph
Cooke and Wheatstone's very first telegraph line was tested on July 4, 1837 within a newly-built carriage shed at Camden Town in north London on the London & Birmingham Railway. The trial was conducted at W F Cooke's risk to demonstrate the utility of the electric telegraph to the railway. Cooke had installed a total of thirteen miles of five-wire circuit, made from seventy miles of copper wire, along the walls of the shed, connected to his own design of telegraph instruments, the "old" mechanical and three-needle instruments. Twenty of the railway company's directors attended the demonstration. On July 10 this indoor telegraph was shown to Robert Stephenson, the company's engineer.

The telegraph that the railway intended to commission had to address a prosaic need for traffic control between the Euston Square and Camden Town stations in London. It was to signal stationary steam engines working cables to haul trains of carriages up a steep one-mile long incline before attaching locomotives for the journey to Birmingham.

In support of his pitch, on July 17 Cooke commenced laying a temporary four-wire "rope" between Euston Square and the stationary engine house at Camden Town, again at his own expense. The specification of this is vague, the "rope" of loose insulated wires seems to have been placed alongside the rails, crossing the track at least once by being hung from nails in a tunnel. On July 25, the temporary mile long "rope" was tried with two of Wheatstone's latest four-needle instruments and a "permutating" keyboard that allowed for twelve signals, and through the thirteen mile indoor carriage shed circuit in the presence of Robert Stephenson. He was sufficiently impressed to instruct Cooke to make a permanent circuit at the railway's expense.  

Wheatstone's Original Five-Needle Telegraph 1837
A large wall-mounted dial and separate key-sets, for five wires
used on the first "permanent" telegraph line

The first near-permanent telegraph line was laid to Cooke's specification with remarkable speed by the railway company's contractors, supervised by Charles Fox, one of its engineers, from Euston to Camden in just one month. By August 31 five parallel thickly-varnished copper wires had been buried underground, embedded in tar-soaked wooden battens between the stations. Cooke's trial instruments were replaced by Wheatstone's "new" patent five-needle or permutating telegraph that signalled the roman alphabet and so could be worked by anyone who could read and write, in circuit with galvanic batteries. This is customarily thought to be the first commercial electric telegraph line in the world. There was an hour long trial of the whole circuit on September 6, 1837.

The first pair of five-needle instruments used in August 1837 were exceptionally-large versions for public demonstration with a diamond-shaped open "dial" twenty-four inches wide and forty-two inches tall, on a mahogany board thirty inches by forty-eight inches, with the row of electro-magnetic coils for the five needles protected by a box on the back, most likely hung on a wall. These instruments still exist. There was a separate brass and mahogany desk-top permutating twenty-key set to work the needles on the dial board.

Most of these early instruments were made by Moore Brothers, church and house clock makers, of 38 Clerkenwell Close, Clerkenwell, London. There were then three brothers Moore, Benjamin, Richard and Josiah, engaged in the clock business. The firm was also known as John Moore & Sons. Wheatstone's earliest electrical apparatus was made by Watkins & Hill, philosophical instrument makers, of 5 Charing Cross. Subsequently, from about 1838, Cooke & Wheatstone commissioned William Reid, of 25 University Street, St Pancras, to make their telegraph models and other electrical implements. Reid was to become one of the largest telegraph manufacturers and contractors for works in Britain, and was to be associated with Wheatstone until his death in the 1860s.

Cooke’s very first mechanical telegraph was made by John Brittan, a clockmaker with Moore Brothers in 1836; it was the size of a “barrel organ” and never completed. Brittan went on to build clockwork telegraphs and alarm bells for Cooke in 1837 and 1838, and attended the first demonstration of the electric telegraph on the London & Birmingham Railway on behalf of his employers, Moore Brothers. John Brittan’s connection with the telegraph was to last for thirty years; eventually he was to become Superintendent of the Instrument Department of the Electric Telegraph Company.

Independently of Wheatstone's craftsmen, Cooke also worked with Frederick Kerby, a dealer in instruments, of 12 Spann's Buildings, St Pancras, who he later called "his mechanician". Kerby's father, Francis, was a practical chemist, and had been assistant to Dionysius Lardner and to William Ritchie, successive Professors of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at London University.

It was Moore and Kerby who supplied the first large dial, five-needle telegraphs and their keyboards that were used between Euston Square and Camden Town in July 1837, each providing one of the pair.

Although successfully demonstrated to the railway's directors as well as Stephenson, the telegraph was deemed unnecessarily complicated. The simple task of signalling between Euston Square and the cable engines at Camden Town was lost in the enthusiasm for plans to lay electric circuits to Liverpool, Manchester and Holyhead where the company (as yet) had no rails. The railway's board were not prepared to consider such huge schemes, even if endorsed by Robert Stephenson. On October 12, 1837 the company wrote to Cooke rejecting further use of the electric telegraph.

On December 14, 1837 Cooke bought the two sets of five-needle telegraphic apparatus, with their large display boards and separate keyboards, from the London & Birmingham Railway for £31, about half their cost. He immediately re-sold them to Wheatstone, who kept them at King's College.

This first near-permanent line of electric telegraph was in operation from July 15, 1837 until January 16, 1838.

On learning of this first electrical success from the newspapers in faraway New York, S F B Morse, a sometime painter and electrical experimenter, took ship to Liverpool in May 1838 with a view to patenting his own simple telegraphic apparatus in Europe. He arrived in the midst of Queen Victoria's coronation. His mission was a failure. Opposed in London by Cooke and Wheatstone and by Edward Davy, possessors of existing telegraphic patents, and as, additionally, he had his apparatus publicised previously in 'Mechanics' Magazine' in February of that year, the Patent Office rejected his submission as already known and unoriginal. In Europe only France allowed him a provisional patent, which lapsed without use. Morse, however, surreptitiously visited the exhibitions of Cooke, Wheatstone and Davy during June 1838, and carefully copied their ideas into his diary and notebooks.

There was then a hiatus in activity. Without a powerful enthusiast like Stephenson on the "inside" it proved difficult to justify the expenditure needed to hard-headed capitalists whose attention was fixed on the golden calf of the railway. But Stephenson gave the business a personal prod in another direction. On September 22, 1837 Cooke had received a note from I K Brunel, Stephenson's great friend.

The Great Western Railway's Paddington station in London
As it was from June 1838 to January 1854;
"The Telegraph Office, at Paddington Station, is at the End of the Up-Train Platform, where a variety of apparatus may be seen in constant operation."
The first public telegraph station was in the arches of the over-bridge carrying Bishops' Road, on the right of this picture

The Great Western Railway 1839
The first permanent line of electric telegraph in England was completed on July 9, 1839 between the Paddington and West Drayton stations of the Great Western Railway (London-Paddington to Bristol), a distance of thirteen miles, having taken a year to make and costing the railway £2,817. It was constructed at the instance of the Company's engineer, I K Brunel, who had been introduced to Cooke by Robert Stephenson, for the railway company's own experimental use; there were then no public messages.

This line was engineered by W F Cooke, using his techniques and his instruments. The new line comprised six varnished copper wires insulated with india-rubber fabric run within a ¾ inch small-bore, iron gas-pipe. The iron pipe was fixed six inches above the ground, to be free of damp, on longitudinal rails and small wooden posts, two or three feet away from the railway, accessed for maintenance every mile or so by circular iron junction boxes. Originally Cooke contemplated embedding the circuit wires in wooden battens, as with the Euston Square to Camden Town line; but "Mr Brunel seems inclined to change his plans", as he did in all his projects, and chose iron pipes instead. 

The small-bore iron pipe was made by James Russell & Co., patent gas tube manufacturers, 69 Upper Thames Street, City, and Wednesbury, Staffordshire; the individual copper wire cores of the "rope", so-called, were insulated and clothed with patented india-rubber-coated cotton by Robert Sievier's London Caoutchouc Company, of 36 King Street, City, at its mill in Tottenham in the north of London.

Contrary to popular belief the five-needle diamond-dial apparatus was not used on the Great Western Railway.  

The instruments used were Cooke's "improved" four-needle telegraphs, which used a separate return wire so that signals could be made by converging two needles and by a single needle, making a total of twenty indications. The sixth wire was included as a "spare". The sending mechanism originally consisted of five of Cooke's rotating "butterfly" commutators, although these were later replaced with Wheatstone's permutating buttons or keys. On April 3, 1838 Cooke quoted his construction costs to the Great Western Railway: £165 per mile for the circuit; £30 for each station; £48 for terminal four-needle instruments, alarms and batteries; £54 for intermediate four-needle instruments with additional "current directors" or switches and £28 for portable two-needle instruments.

Originally the Great Western Railway telegraph had just two instrument stations, Paddington and West Drayton. By December 1839 intermediate instruments were inserted at Ealing and Hanwell stations and at the railway's depot at Bull's Bridge, which could be switched in and out of the line; the first step to creating a system. Sad to relate the railway company soon lost interest and the four-needle telegraphs were little used after February 1840.

I K Brunel's interest in the telegraph was also transient. Apart from insisting on the use of iron pipe to protect the circuits he left everything else to Cooke. This is quite unlike Brunel's usual detailed, and expensive, involvement in his works. 

Cooke's four-needle electric telegraph of 1837
Note the "butterfly" switches and gas-pipe conduit
These were the instruments used on the Great Western Railway
between July 1839 and February 1840 

Robert Stephenson's next intervention was far more fruitful and effectively "made" Cooke & Wheatstone's telegraph in the eyes of railway capitalists...

London & Blackwall Railway terminus at Minories, London 1840
Cooke & Wheatstone single-needle telegraph on pillar at left,
the first illustration showing the electric telegraph in operation

The London & Blackwall Railway 1840
The second permanent line was constructed alongside of the short three-mile track of the London & Blackwall Railway. This came about through the influence of George Parker Bidder, the railway's engineer and partner of Robert Stephenson. Bidder was to become, without question, the most important advocate of and investor in electric telegraphy; a critical figure in its early development. The Blackwall telegraph opened on July 4, 1840, the circuit being constructed in six months, costing £2,338. This railway was rope-operated with each of the original five stations having a single-needle instrument connected to one five-dial instrument in the rope-engine house, so as to stop and start traction. The india-rubber insulated wires were again laid in iron tubes, partly on pillars and partly underground.  The telegraph was used initially entirely for railway traffic control.

The two telegraph conduits in iron "gas pipes" along the viaduct
of the Blackwall Railway 1843
Revealed by a fire on the Back Road, or Cable Street, Whitechapel

Although a very short line, only 3½ miles long, the London & Blackwall Railway was remarkably aggressive and innovative. It was to have many novel attributes. Authorised in July 1836 it adopted its own gauge, 5 feet rather than the common 4 feet 8½ inches, and its own mode of traction, cable-hauled carriages rather than steam locomotives. Most of it was made on a brick viaduct, from Minories, a road in Stepney, on the edge of the City of London, to the Brunswick steam packet wharf at Blackwall on the Thames river.

Brunswick Steam Packet Wharf, Blackwall, on the Thames river 1840
The eastern terminus of the London & Blackwall Railway
The site included railway station, custom house, hotel and warehouse,
and the electric telegraph

Morton Peto was one of three contractors responsible for the construction of the London & Blackwall Railway; he and his then partner, Thomas Grissell, built "the Blackwall end". As with Robert Stephenson and G P Bidder, Peto was to be deeply impressed with the effect of the telegraph on railways. He, too, became a vitally important investor in the new medium.

In 1837 the Blackwall company began a parliamentary battle to obtain powers to enter the City of London which it achieved in 1839, extending its rails from Minories, where it had its western engine house to work the cable, 600 yards to Fenchurch Street, where it erected its terminus in 1841, giving it eight stations in all, and doubling its passenger numbers. It was the only railway station permitted in the City for over twenty years.

As well as owning the steam wharf at Blackwall, which quickly became the main London passenger station for continental steamers, its directors contrived to create an integrated transport system: promoting the London & Blackwall Steam Packet Company independently of the railway to work its own excursion steamers along the Thames to Gravesend, and smaller vessels to collect passengers for the City from Greenwich. The combination of railway and steamer was condemned by Parliament as an abuse of powers, but the directors defied the lawmakers and kept the capital of each separate.


Cooke & Wheatstone's single-needle electric telegraph of 1840
Thirty of these instruments were eventually used on the
London & Blackwall Railway for train control and for messaging.
The first use of one needle signalling and the "drop handle"

Francis Whishaw described their telegraph in his book, 'Railways of Great Britain and Ireland' of 1842:

"We must not omit to mention briefly the beautiful apparatus of Messrs Wheatstone and Cooke, by which instantaneous communication is effected between the terminal stations, or between any one station and any other on the line. Without this, one of the most splendid inventions of modern times, the working of the Blackwall Railway according to the present system would have been rendered rather hazardous."

"There are three persons employed at the terminal stations to work the electro-galvanic telegraph, each of whom attends nine hours a day, which time is separated by an interval of four hours, as it requires too much attention on the part of the manipulator to enable him to remain at it for nine hours consecutively. At the intermediate stations it is the duty of the policemen to attend to the signals, which are very easily understood and readily managed. There will be altogether about twenty miles of wire to work effectually the signals on this short railway."

There were thirty single-needle telegraph instruments working continuously from 8 o'clock in the morning until 10 o'clock at night on the Blackwall circuits. The dealer, Frederick Kerby, and his machinist brother-in-law, John Warner, of Spann's Buildings, St Pancras, appear to have supplied the instruments used by Cooke on the London & Blackwall Railway in 1840. These were the first single-needle telegraphs actually in service; the first, too, with vertical commutators or "drop handles", utilised in Cooke & Wheatstone's subsequent needle instruments, replacing Cooke's "butterfly" switches.

Cooke & Wheatstone's five-dial telegraph of 1840|
Five single dials, one for each station on the London & Blackwall Railway,
used to receive messages for the cable engine that hauled the carriages.
Now with "drop handles" rather than "butterfly" switches.

The circuit had fourteen insulated wires within the iron tube in 440 yard sections connected by junction boxes. The 'Railway Times' quoted Cooke in July 1841 describing the preparation of the circuits: "Each wire is separately covered with cotton and india-rubber solution, and the set of wires made into a rope, which is passed though a hot resinous varnish before being introduced into the tubes."

As it was found vulnerable to the intrusion of moisture a "Galvanic Rope" was kept to hand at Blackwall. This was a 440 yard electric cable, the first ever made, produced by the London Caoutchouc Company at its works in High Road, Tottenham, north London. It had fourteen wire cores insulated with india-rubber bound together in cotton webbing and 'water-proofed', wound on to a reel. When the line required repair the "Rope" was connected between two section junction boxes to maintain the circuit and the decayed wire replaced without any disruption to traffic. This was one of the many ingenious ideas of W F Cooke.

Circuit testing 1841
Cooke's "detector" or portable galvanometer, a small battery of electric cells
and two insulated "feelers" applied to circuit wires in a test box on the London & Blackwall Railway "gas pipe" telegraph

A code, one hundred common phrases represented by the movement of two or three deflections of each needle, printed on a wall-chart was quickly introduced during 1840 to enable railway company messages to be sent between the stations and to the rope-engine house; turning it into what the plain-speaking George Stephenson (Robert's father) called at the time a "talking machine". A second, parallel telegraph circuit just for "talking" was built by the partners for the Blackwall Railway in 1841. The unique 440 yard "Galvanic Rope" or cable on its portable reel became surplus to need and was lent to (or otherwise carried off by) Wheatstone for submarine telegraphic experiments.

Signalling the Railways
The successful traffic control of the London & Blackwall Railway immediately inspired several other short cable-worked lines, railway lines in long tunnels and single track lines to adopt Cooke & Wheatstone's electric telegraph for train management over limited distances, but not yet for public messages.

W F Cooke was particularly keen in this period to promote the use of the telegraph for safety and signalling on railways. He wrote the pamphlet Telegraphic Railways in 1842 recommending "block signalling" in which track, especially on single lines, was divided into blocks or sections into which only one train might enter, their movement in and out monitored electrically. He was the first to define, and to implement, a traffic management system for railways, providing for their efficient and safe operation.

The end of the first railway boom in 1841, brought about by tightening credit and world-wide foreign trade problems, had hindered the partners' prospects. Capital for the next four years was to be applied to finishing authorised railways rather than to new projects with an unknown future, hence Cooke's emphasis on utilitarian railway signalling.

The trains of the 20 mile single-track line of the Yarmouth & Norwich Railway were controlled by Cooke & Wheatstone's telegraph from May 1, 1844. This had a complex and unique arrangement using a large five-dial railway signal instrument with single-needles, similar to that on the Blackwall railway, at each of the five stations on the line, and a separate two-needle message circuit. Though effective, maintenance of such a complicated system with eight wires was excessive; so the five-dial instruments were soon replaced by single-needle telegraphs in series. The Yarmouth & Norwich was to be absorbed into the Eastern Counties Railway.

 Cooke & Wheatstone's Five-dial Railway Telegraph 1844
It was used uniquely on the Yarmouth & Norwich Railway, one dial for each station and witha two-needle message telegraph

On the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway in 1841 Cooke constructed a short line for train control from Queen Street station, Glasgow, through a tunnel to the engine house at Cowlairs; the first in Scotland.

Cooke's earliest pipe-conduit-and-post method of conducting wire circuits was to be used on the Blackwall, Leeds & Manchester and Edinburgh & Glasgow railways, as well as on the original West Drayton circuit on the Great Western Railway.

Pursuing their foreign interests Cooke and Wheatstone obtained a patent in the United States on June 10, 1840 based upon their original English brevet. They then sold a half-share to three American citizens. George Peabody, the New York banker and philanthropist resident in London, was party to the negotiations.

So Many New Ideas
The Second Patent 1840
In the same year, 1840, they acquired their second English patent which introduced the dial telegraph; in which the letters of the alphabet were indicated on the edge of rotating disc, the rotation past an index being electrically dictated by a miniature "capstan" at a distant station. The first dial telegraph, designed by Wheatstone, had the disc driven by clockwork with an electrical escapement, and used the power of galvanic batteries to release the escapement. Another, by Cooke, was more compact; with the clockwork and an electrically-moderated escapment driving a pointer, pulses of electricity being generated by rotating the outer rim of the dial by means of an annular finger piece.    

Cooke's dial telegraph 1840
"A telegraph giving 30 or 60 signals by the pointing of a revolving
index hand at letters on a fixed dial, as in a common clock.
The person giving the signal turns the concentric hand till the
pointer stands opposite the signal to be given, then, instantaneously,
the index hand in all the corresponding telegraphs in the circuit pointto the same signal."  

The patent of 1840 also included the first type-printing telegraph. This had steel type fixed at the tips of petals of a rotating brass daisy-wheel, struck by an "electric hammer" to print roman letters through carbon paper onto a moving paper tape.

The earliest arrangements of the electric telegraph were based on the railway company acquiring a licence of the patentees and commissioning the partners to build a line of wire at a rate per mile; requiring Cooke & Wheatstone to purchase materials in advance of full payment. Licenses and the profit from construction were the principle sources of income. Regarding licences; the London & Blackwall were charged £100 a mile on four miles of line; the Edinburgh & Glasgow £100 a mile for a one mile circuit for a tunnel, and the Yarmouth & Norwich £110 a mile for 40 miles. The London & Croydon Railway resisted a demand for a £70 a mile licence; and the Manchester & Leeds rejected outright a licence payment, although both had the telegraph installed by Cooke.

In all of these negotiations on behalf of the patentees and the subsequent project management W F Cooke was the principal, he also engaged – independently of Wheatstone - to manage the construction of the works and purchase materials. Usage of the wire was at the discretion of the railway; until 1843 this did not include general public access.  

Wheatstone's Cross-Channel Cable 1840
Top, laying from a towed barge; below, the cable drums and brakes; beneath, under-running the cable for repairs; bottom, the cable design.
It was to be over ten years before these innovations were re-invented

Whilst Cooke was so active with managing and promoting the patents, with astonishing prescience on February 6, 1840 Wheatstone laid before the House of Commons' Select Committee on Railways his proposal for an underwater telegraph between England and France. This comprised a cable of seven conductors insulated with yarn saturated with tar and protected by iron wire. It was comprehensive; he presented the design of the cable, the cable-making machine, a profile of the sea-bed, depth soundings between Dover and Cap Griz Nez, the machinery for laying the cable and its installation in a barge. On August 28 and 29, 1844 Wheatstone was to be found laying an experimental submarine cable in Swansea Bay, South Wales. With his eye for business Cooke complained when Wheatstone would not patent these innovations.  

Wheatstone demonstrating his dial telegraph to Prince Albert, 1843
The sending and receiving dials on the table at left
A signal was sent to raise a flag on the Shot Tower in the middle background 

On August 21, 1842 Wheatstone gained permission of the Waterloo Bridge Company to lay an india-rubber insulated single core wire along the parapet of their span across the Thames between the Strand and Lambeth. By September 1842, after reassuring the bridge company that he would make good any damage, he had laid a wire from his rooms at King's College along the parapet of Somerset House overlooking the river, which backed onto the College, over the parapet of Waterloo Bridge and up Walkers, Parker & Company's 150 foot Shot Tower at their lead works on Belvedere Road on the far bank of the Thames. The return circuit was, for the first time, "wireless", being zinc metal plates inserted on either bank of the river. Electric signals were regularly sent and flags raised on the Shot Tower to indicate reception. At the end of June 1843 Wheatstone demonstrated this circuit and his latest dial telegraph that sent roman alphabet rather than code or cipher, to Prince Albert, the Queen's consort, on the occasion of the opening of a Royal Museum of Scientific Instruments at King's College, on the terrace of Somerset House.

The partners, despite their continual arguments, were granted a new patent in 1842 defining a simpler, much more economic telegraph system.  

Cooke & Wheatstone's first two-needle telegraph instrument
Introducing as well the drop-handle commutators
Used on the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway in 1841

Cooke & Wheatstone's Telegraphic System
The Third Patent  1842

In January 1843, Cooke renegotiated the agreement with the Great Western Railway, extending the line a further four miles to the more important Slough station. The four-needle telegraph instruments were replaced by a two-needle apparatus that used cipher; and the gas-pipe conduit was replaced by overhead suspension of just two wires secured to glazed pottery insulators pinned to the sides of tall poles. This arrangement of two-needle instruments and the overhead suspension of wires was to be "Cooke & Wheatstone's Telegraphic System" for the next fifteen years - protected by their patents of 1838 and 1842.

The Paddington terminus of the Great Western Railway 1842
The first public Telegraph Office is on the right, by the exit arch of the
platform from Bristol and the West-of-England

 Cooke had experimented with twisted copper wire rope attached to poles on the Great Western line before settling on simple, inexpensive galvanized iron wire as the conductor. He had first used iron wire previously in the year 1843 when the telegraph was introduced into Ireland on the 1½ mile long Dalkey branch of the Dublin & Kingstown Railway. He became a member of the Galvanized Iron Company, which was formed by C W Tupper to work H W Craufurd's patent of 1837 for coating iron and copper with zinc by hot dipping to prevent corrosion. This patent was a communication from the original inventor the French engineer, Stanislas Sorel. Although called "galvanized" it was not a galvanic or electrical process. The iron company's main product was thin galvanized plate for corrugating, wire was a subsidiary item.

Cooke reported in the press during 1843 that the gas-pipe conduit and rubber-coated copper wires had cost £287 per mile; compared with his new system of overhead-suspended iron wires and pottery insulators at £149 per mile, both net of contractor's profit and contingencies. Insulation was considerably improved.  

The "Telegraph Cottage"
at Slough railway station on the Great Western Railway 1843

Wheatstone, as an academic, did not wish to engage in the increasingly involved management of the patents; and he also, quite probably, wished to reduce his relationship with the argumentative Cooke. On April 12, 1843 he assigned his patent rights to Cooke, exchanging his share in any profits from licenses and contracting for making the works for a one-off royalty on every mile of telegraph laid, on a sliding scale from £15 to £20. The royalty payments that he received under this agreement show the slow progress of the telegraph; in 1844 it was £444 and in 1845, when 175 new miles of line were completed, £2,775. However in this assignment he retained rights to use his latest dial instruments for circuits less than one mile in length; these were intended for domestic and other purposes.

Wheatstone also retained rights to sell licences in the continent of Europe, excepting Austria and Russia. In pursuit of this he commissioned F O Ward, a former medical student at King's College, to act as his agent abroad on January 21, 1846. Wheatstone was to have a royalty of £3 a mile on each mile that he facilitated. It was an abortive agreement; Ward remained in Britain and became well-known as a "sanitary agitator".  


Cooke & Wheatstone's two-needle telegraph 1843
This is the instrument used at Slough station on the Great Western Railway
Made by William Reid, the telegraph contractor, it still exists

First Public Access
On May 16, 1843, the circuit between London and Slough on the Great Western Railway was opened for messages by Cooke & Wheatstone's agent, Thomas Home: this was Britain's first public telegraph service, albeit an exercise in generating publicity. Slough was convenient for the Royal residence at Windsor and the Queen's household and her government were soon patronising the electric telegraph in mutual, widely-reported, exchanges. There were eventually six electric telegraph stations on this early line on the Great Western Railway – Paddington, Ealing, Hanwell, Southall, West Drayton and Slough. The flat rate charge was 1s 0d for a message of any length between any station, delivery by messenger or cab was extra; there was also a 1s 0d entry fee for mere spectators at the "Telegraph Office," Paddington and the "Telegraph Cottage," Slough, half-price for children and school parties. The offices were open between 9 o'clock in the morning until 8 o'clock in the evening.

In 1843 Thomas Home was aged 18.

As well as introducing the two-needle instrument for public telegraphy in 1843 Thomas Home also announced demonstrations of what he called "Prof Wheatstone's electro-magnetic telegraph" in the lengthened Great Western Railway circuits. Unlike the Cooke & Wheatstone two-needle instruments this indicated individual letters and numbers by turning a circular dial and used electricity produced by a rotating magneto device without batteries of cells! At the time it was used only to generate publicity; members of the public could send their own messages with this device by turning a hand-sized wheel to send pulses of electricity to move the disc of the dial telegraph.

Wheatstone's patent type-printing telegraph 1841
Front and Side views
Similar to his dial telegraph, a clockwork rotates the thin metal print wheel according to pulses of electricity, stopping the current allows
a spring-worked hammer to strike a letter on the daisy-wheel though carbon paper onto a moving paper tape
Used regularly between Paddington and Slough in 1844 

The publicity attracted celebrity visitors, including, Home declared in 1845, HRH Prince Albert, the Emperor of Russia, the King and Prince William of Prussia, the Duke of Montpensier (son of the King of France), HRH the Duke of Cambridge (the Queen's uncle), the Duke of Wellington, the Prime Minister, Robert Peel, and the Persian Ambassador.

The Emperor Nicholas of Russia, when on a visit to Queen Victoria at Windsor, took the opportunity whilst passing through Paddington station on the Great Western Railway on June 3, 1844 to inspect the workings of the telegraph office. Fortuitously W F Cooke was present to explain the apparatus to his Imperial Majesty.

There survives a diary entry written by Gertrude Sullivan, a young lady in society, in 1844 describing the Telegraph Office at Paddington station. Miss Sullivan and her friends were conducted around by Charles Wheatstone, to whom she had been introduced at an evening party on March 18 at Mrs Maria Drummond's house at 18 Hyde Park Gardens. At the same party, as well as Wheatstone, Miss Sullivan had met Charles Babbage, the inventor of the "difference engine" or computer, and Michael Faraday, the brilliant physicist; such were Mrs Drummond's political, artistic and scientific connections!

April 30, 1844 - "Went with Mrs Drummond to see Wheatstone's electrical telegraph, which is the most wonderful thing I ever saw. It is perfect from the terminus of the Great Western as far as Slough, that is, eighteen miles; the wires being in some places underground in tubes, and in others high up in the air, which last, he says, is by far the best plan. We asked if the weather did not affect the wires, but he said not: a violent thunderstorm might ring a bell, but no more."

"We were taken into a small room, where were several wooden cases, containing different sorts of telegraphs."

"In one sort every word was spelt, and as each letter was placed in turn in a particular position, the machinery caused the electric fluid to run down the line, where it made the letter show itself at Slough, by what machinery he could not undertake to explain. After each word came a sign from Slough, signifying 'I understand,' coming certainly in less than one second from the end of the word."

 "Another one is worked by figures which mean whole sentences, there being a book of reference for the purpose."

"Another prints the messages it brings, so that if no one attended to the bell, which they all ring to call attention when they are at work, the message would not be lost. This is effected by the electrical fluid causing a little hammer to strike the letter which presents itself, the letter which is raised hits some manifold writing paper (a new invention, black paper, which, if pressed, leaves an indelible black mark), by which means the impression is left on white paper beneath. This was the most ingenious of all, and apparently Mr. Wheatstone's favourite; he was very good-natured in explaining, but understands it so well himself that he cannot feel how little we know about it, and goes too fast for such ignorant folk to follow him in everything."

"Mrs Drummond told me he is wonderful for the rapidity with which he thinks and his power of invention; he invents so many things that he cannot put half his ideas into execution, but leaves them to be picked up and used by others, who get the credit of them."

Miss Sullivan's journal evidences that Thomas Home had working on the electric circuits between Paddington and Slough in 1844 Cooke & Wheatstone's two-needle telegraph, using a code or phrase book to speed transmission of regular messages, Wheatstone's dial telegraph indicating individual roman letters, and Wheatstone's modification of the dial telegraph to enable it to print roman type on a paper tape; the latter two instruments being for experimental or, more probably, for publicity-seeking purposes.

 Thomas Home published the wholly reasonable anecdote that, by the telegraph, he accomplished the apparent paradox of sending a message in the year 1845, and receiving it in the year 1844. Directly after the clock had struck twelve on the night of December 31 he at Paddington signalled his brother at Slough that he wished him a happy new year; an answer was instantly returned, suggesting that the wish was premature, as the year had not yet arrived at Slough. It was to be several years before the telegraph was to enable uniform or mean time from east to west in the country.  

The First Long Line in Britain
From London to Southampton, completed on January 31, 1844

Break Through - The London & South-Western Railway 1844
The momentum for real expansion came at last in August, 1844 when W F Cooke negotiated with the Board of Admiralty for the erection of a long private line of electric telegraph between Whitehall in London and the naval headquarters at Portsmouth alongside of the London & South-Western Railway – replacing a redundant naval semaphore apparatus with Cooke & Wheatstone's new Telegraphic System of two-needle instruments and overhead wires. The Admiralty were to pay £1,200 per annum to use the circuit. As part of this deal he obtained rights for parallel wires for railway messages and for public messages which extended over the entire system of the London & South-Western company – in particular to the port city of Southampton, the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea and India. This, the first long-distance circuit in Britain, opened from Nine Elms, London through to Southampton and Gosport in February 1845, it cost in total £24,000. The contract was so substantial that, for the first time, Cooke employed a resident telegraph engineer, Owen Rowland. 

The first trial of the Southampton "long line", just the first 72 miles, took place successfully between Nine Elms, the railway's London terminus, and Bishopstoke in Hampshire as the construction works were still in progress during the week of January 18, 1845. On January 31 Cooke travelled to Gosport to complete the two 88 mile two-wire circuits. At 10 o'clock in the evening he telegraphed the clerk at Nine Elms using the two-needle instrument. The clerk, unfortunately, had dozed off in front of the fire waiting for the first signal. To Cooke's relief the response eventually came back four minutes after ten.

On the following day, February 1, Wheatstone went to Nine Elms and began a series of experimental messages back and forth to Gosport with the two-needle apparatus, all of which were successful. He also took the opportunity to try his new "electro-magnetic" or dial telegraph, worked by a magneto, hence without batteries. This required only a single wire; with one dial instrument in circuit at Nine Elms a return was arranged by connecting two wires of the long line at Gosport. It too was successful.

It was intended that two of the four wires erected between London and Gosport (for Portsmouth) be used for Admiralty traffic and two for railway and for public messages, with a further two-wire public branch circuit to Southampton. The Admiralty was to purchase a pair of two-needle instruments and a pair of the new dial instruments for their ciphered work from Cooke & Wheatstone. The public long lines would be worked entirely by the two-needle telegraph.

Public access to this long line was to be limited for a great many years. Messages could only be sent between the railway's three terminal stations: Nine Elms in London, which was moved to Waterloo Bridge on July 11, 1848, closer to the heart of the metropolis, Southampton and Portsmouth, until well into the next decade.

Shortly after, on February 9, 1845 the newspapers' announced that "Mr Cooke is prepared to accept a challenge to lay down a telegraph line from London to Falmouth, Liverpool or Edinburgh, without any intermediate stages", using "the present system of insulation". This was premature. It took another four years to achieve something approaching that coverage and even then with frequent re-transmission of messages as insulation of the circuits continued to be a problem.

The installation on the London & South-Western Railway was not without competition. Alexander Bain also had a trial circuit laid from Nine Elms, alongside the tracks, eight miles, to Wimbledon in April 1844, intending to extend it to Portsmouth. He used two mechanical telegraphs with both an index dial and a printing mechanism, connected by a single copper wire insulated with asphalt. The apparatus was complex and required perfect synchronisation; it was not a success.

In February 1845 the Queen's Speech on the annual opening of Parliament was transmitted from Nine Elms in London to Portsmouth, at eighty-eight miles the longest circuit then possible in England. The speech contained 3,600 letters and took two hours to transmit, at the rate of 300 letters a minute. 

Wheatstone's Electro-Magnetic Dial Telegraph 1843
Interior workings left, External appearance right 
No batteries needed

Use of Wheatstone's new alphabet-indicating dial telegraph was continued experimentally in this long circuit on both the Admiralty and the public wires in 1845. There was to be a carefully-staged 'on-line' Telegraphic Chess event on April 10, 1845 to publicise the dial telegraph. The giants of chess, Howard Staunton and Hugh Alexander Kennedy, took on a team of six "amateur" players; the giants playing white in Gosport, the "amateurs", with black, at Vauxhall, 90 miles away. Staunton happened, coincidentally, to be chess correspondent of the 'Illustrated London News' – which gave lavish coverage to the exercise. The match lasted from 11.30am until 7pm, and after forty-three moves ended in a draw. Unfortunately it had to be undertaken on the two-needle apparatus; at this stage of development, without Wheatstone's immediate supervision, the dial instruments proved unreliable and were difficult to synchronise.

For those interested, the 'on-line' rematch two days later resulted in a victory for the "amateurs".

In May 1845 Cooke reported to the press that, under his management, the electric telegraph extended over the following routes:

1. London & South-Western Railway – for the Government, from the Admiralty at Whitehall to Portsmouth, 90 miles
2. London & South-Western Railway – for commercial use, Nine Elms to Southampton, 77 miles
3. London & South-Western Railway – for commercial use, Southampton to Gosport, 21 miles
4. London & Dover (South Eastern Railway) - Tunbridge to Maidstone (single line), 15 miles
5. London & Croydon Railway (an atmospheric line), 9 miles
6. South Devon Railway – Exeter to Plymouth (in part an atmospheric line), 52 miles
7. London & Blackwall Railway (cable), 3 miles
8. Great Western Railway - London to Slough, 18 miles
9. Yarmouth & Norwich Railway (single line), 20 miles

Cooke also noted at this time circuits he had laid between April 1843 and December 1845 alongside parts of the Manchester & Leeds Railway, that company's Oldham branch, the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway, the Dalkey branch (an atmospheric line) of the Dublin & Kingstown Railway in Ireland, the Northampton to Peterborough branch (single line) and the relaying of the very first line between Euston Square and Camden of the London & Birmingham (soon to become the London & North-Western) Railway. There were then about 250 miles of Cooke & Wheatstone's telegraph, granted on local licences of the patentees to the relevant railway company controlling the route. None were contiguous.

Cooke recorded that he had provided thirty-six patent telegraph instruments in this time.

Croydon Telegraph 1846

Cooke & Wheatstone's two-needle telegraph 1846
Here used on the London & Croydon Railway to manage its atmospheric operating system. The instrument has the three engine houses at Forest Hill, Norwood and Croydon indicated on its face

The London & Croydon Railway which worked from the shared terminus at London Bridge 10 miles south to Croydon in Surrey, added a third track to the 7½ miles of its line from New Cross to Croydon for a “fast” service worked on the atmospheric principle. It opened partly on January 19, 1846 and completely on February 27, 1846 with 39 trains a day over the single railway track reaching up to 75 mph.

The stationary air pumping houses at Forest Hill, Norwood and Croydon were connected from the outset by Cooke & Wheatstone’s two-needle electric telegraph to control the stopping and starting of the silent-running eight- and nine-carriage trains. The instruments operated successfully, without any complaint.

The Croydon’s parallel third atmospheric line was closed on May 3, 1847 due to continued problems with maintenance of the pneumatic tube and converted to locomotive traction. The Croydon was later absorbed by the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway

A further 300 milesof telegraph were planned to connect London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Holyhead, the ferry port for Dublin, Ireland, alongside of the tracks of the newly amalgamated London & North-Western Railway and its allies.

As his part of their agreement Wheatstone had successfully negotiated concessions abroad, introducing their electric telegraph into France in 1842, Germany in 1843 and Belgium in 1845, all with circuits built alongside of railways.  

Even Mr Punch's Railway, the Worst Line in the World,
was equipped with the electric telegraph!

The Railway Connection
On the South Devon Railway in the far west of the country, Cooke & Wheatstone, in the autumn of 1844, contracted to install the telegraph on its whole fifty-two mile length at £160 per mile, linking the passenger stations. This line, too, did not use locomotive engines but had fixed line-side 'atmospheric-' or air-pumps for traction. However by January 1848 atmospheric working was used on just twenty miles; the eight pump-engine houses initially, and to the detriment of atmospheric operation, did not have direct access to the telegraph, which was located in the ticket offices. 

During January 1846 the Eastern Counties Railway commissioned Cooke to install the telegraph over its 186 miles of track and 55 stations. By mid-year 180 miles of telegraph line were completed, worked by sixty instruments. For a great many years this was the most intense use of the electric telegraph by a railway company, with more lines and instruments per mile of rail than any other. As well as for signalling it was used extensively for public messaging. This level of innovation is remarkable in that the Eastern Counties Railway was ridden with financial scandal from its beginning; teetering on bankruptcy for half-a-century.

The chairman of the Eastern Counties line was the legendary “Railway King”, George Hudson. As will be revealed later, Hudson’s advocacy of the telegraph in the railways he controlled was found to be self-serving and corrupt. 

The contract for building the original Eastern Counties Railway line, and latterly many of its subsidiaries and branches, was let to Morton Peto. In 1846 he was already a great builder and was shortly to become one of the largest contractors for public works in Britain. By 1850 one-third of all the rails in England had been constructed by Peto, a figure of controversy in his financial affairs. However he was to be the saviour of the electric telegraph in the hard times to come, and was to be active in its development for many years, having first noticed its innovation when building the London & Blackwall Railway in 1838.

In July 1846 the telegraph on the Eastern Counties connected London with Norwich and Yarmouth, with Ipswich in the east of the country, and most of the railway's intermediate stations. It also had a circuit from Ely to Peterborough which opened a connection to Birmingham and Rugby, along the Peterborough branch of the London & North-Western Railway, anticipating the new telegraph to Liverpool. The wire on its branch to Blackwall allowed public messages to and from there for the first time; the London & Blackwall Railway Company's old circuit was still "for the use of the Company alone." It was the intention of the Eastern Counties' board to place the electric telegraph on all of its important branches.

The instruments on the Eastern Counties were worked by its station-masters except where business necessitated a dedicated clerk.

During September 1845 Cooke announced the extension of the telegraph over the entire system of the South Eastern Railway. For the first time the works over the 124 miles of its main line from London to Dover and all of its branches were undertaken by an independent contractor commissioned by the railway company, W T Henley, not by Cooke, and completed in July 1846. This was Cooke's last major contract as sole manager of the Cooke & Wheatstone patents. To continue with the expansion of telegraphy a large capital was needed.   

The South-Eastern Railway's Harbour at Folkestone 1849
The telegraph wires loop around the Railway Hotel to the Steamer Pier,
one of the first submarine cables was laid across this harbour

As can be seen, all of the small number of lines of telegraph the partners' organised were alongside of railways, where the rights of way between centres of population were already under single ownership.

Of these lines, the long city-to-city circuit alongside of the London & South-Western Railway was the most vital, demonstrating to the public the importance of the electric telegraph. Of the others, most used the telegraph for traffic control, either for single line working or because they did not use locomotive engines at all and required signals to stop and start stationary engines. As noted, the Blackwall railway was worked by cable and the Croydon, South Devon and Dalkey lines used the so-called atmospheric system, the trains being drawn by a piston in a vacuum tube between the rails with large line-side air pumps (a process that George Stephenson acidly dubbed "a rope of air").

Such public access to the electric telegraph as existed between 1841 and 1844 was confined to offices within a very limited number of railway stations, with no interconnecting or long-distance traffic or common tariff. Public use of the telegraph was, in fact, scarcely considered in that period.

The intimate connection between railway companies and the electric telegraph was established almost immediately the Cooke & Wheatstone patent was granted and continued for the next thirty years. The railway connection was for the most part invisible to the public and, perhaps surprisingly, also to the Government. The owners of the telegraph line, whether Cooke & Wheatstone or their corporate successors, through this co-operation had the immense advantage of having to deal with one landholder, the railway company.

Not that this connection was straightforward: for by 1867 there were to be 476 different railway companies in the three kingdoms (the maximum achieved in Britain and Ireland), each company having been debated and authorised by Parliament, owning 14,247 miles of rails; frequently merging and floating-off subsidiaries.

The competitors to Cooke & Wheatstone that appeared once their patents expired had to find other ways to connect populations.

Growth of the Railways 1800 -1850
Knight's Cyclopaedia 1851

Year………Acts of Parliament………Miles Authorised……..Miles Open
By 1840…………..299………………………..3,000
1841………………..19………………………….14 ……………………….1,100

Each line of railway required an authorising Act of the British Parliament, not just in establishing the concern but for every branch and alteration.

There had been a Little Mania for railway building in 1836 as well as the great speculative Mania throughout 1845 and 1846, which required the debating of 574 new Acts of Parliament to create railway companies.

Unlike in the United States or in wilder parts of Europe there were no major cross-country telegraph lines. The telegraph in Britain was to follow the rails, the roads and, eventually, the canals to connect cities. Also unlike in the United States there were few 'point-to-point' telegraphic concerns – in Britain the overwhelming majority of the several enterprises that were soon to be created to develop domestic telegraphy were, or at least intended to be, 'national' in coverage.

Lines Abroad
On May 25, 1845 Cooke & Wheatstone opened the first electric telegraph line in the Netherlands along the initial nineteen kilometre section of the Hollandsche IJzeren Spoorwegmaatschappij (Holland Iron Railway Company) between Amsterdam and Haarlem. The two-wire overhead circuit was to use Wheatstone's dial telegraph, rather than the needle apparatus. It was operated in cooperation with Eduard Wenckebach, an Amsterdam instrument maker. On December 19, 1847 Wenckebach obtained a second concession, for a line between Amsterdam and Den Helder, but chose to use his own instruments. He was to become director of the Dutch government's Rijkstelegraaf in 1852.  

The following is a description of the first Dutch telegraph circuit written by S F B Morse in his usual sour style on September 22, 1845, just after being rejected by the capitalists of London:

"Went to see the Telegraph which is established here between Amsterdam and Haarlem. The Amsterdam terminus is at the railway-depot, and used for the purposes of the road only. It has been established six weeks. It communicates a distance of only ten miles English. The system is Wheatstone's ratchet-wheel instrument, slightly modified from the instrument shown me at the Southampton terminus in London. A dial-plate, with the letters marked upon the outer edge, is turned to the desired point for each letter, and then stopped a moment to be recognized. After each word a period is shown, and after each message a cross +. I inquired how many letters could be shown in a minute; the answer was fifteen ordinarily, but they could give twenty-four in a minute. A single wire is used in this case; it is said to be iron. A battery of six cups was shown me, which required replenishing every few days. The cost, the conductor told me, was about twenty pounds sterling per mile. The posts are about three inches diameter, and not more than eight or nine feet high; they are planted along the railroad, not so high as the tops of the cars. The telegraph is not used at present for general purposes, but the Government has been petitioned to grant them the privilege, and it is expected to be granted. It is used exclusively for the service of the railroad. The wire is covered with silk, and of iron; so said the superintendent. It is larger than mine about No. 12."

Morse went on "The conductor told me that Mr Wheatstone was engaged upon an instrument which would print the letters, and that it would be ready in about two weeks. From what I could learn it might possibly print as fast as it now shows a letter; that is, ordinarily, about fifteen letters per minute, while mine ordinarily prints forty-five, and can print eighty..." In 1845 the American telegraph scratched dots and dashes on a paper tape, requiring transcription; Wheatstone's new receiver printed the roman alphabet in ink!

The Cooke & Wheatstone two-needle system was the initial public telegraph in Belgium. A patent, based on the partners' first English claims, had been obtained on October 28, 1840 with the assistance of Wheatstone's academic friend Adolphe Quetelet, the director of l'Observatoire Royale in Brussels. The partners, with Quetelet's assistance, eventually obtained a twenty-one year concession of the Belgian government on December 23, 1845 to erect and work a line of electric telegraph alongside of the government's Brussels to Antwerp railway. This was to be completed by their successors in the following year.

 The first posters advertising the Electric Telegraph in 1843
Created by Thomas Home for Cooke & Wheatstone
 (Click on image for larger version, click on Previous Page to resume)

Telegraph, from the Greek “tele”, distant, and “graphos”, writing
© Copyright - Steven Roberts 2012